Stanford scientists make 'lab-on-a-stick'

August 9, 2009 12:00:00 AM PDT
Researchers at Stanford have adapted the same technology that reads a computer disk to read blood for diseases. Their new diagnostic device runs on batteries and can fit in your pocket. This next step in biotech could help provide better medical care in remote parts of the world.

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"In its initial inception," laughs Drew Hall, "we called it a Lab-on-a-Stick, kind of punning on Lab-on-a-Chip. Call it a blood lab that fits in your palm. It can test for flu and HIV, and hepatitis and cancer, all at once in less than ten minutes."

Hall's fellow Ph.D. candidate and partner on the project Richard Gaster adds, "We can do saliva, urine, and many other different media, cerebral spinal fluid, too."

First, you draw a sample of body fluid and place it in a tiny... well, on a stick. Then, mix into it a solution of microscopic magnets, nanoparticles coated with antibodies for the disease suspected. Finally, turn on an electro-magnet like the kind used in hard disk drives. If a particle latches onto its disease counterpart, its resistance changes and the magnet reads it the way it would read your email. The results appear in green, yellow and red LEDs.

Gaster and Hall could have added an LCD screen...

"But, Richard and I thought it would be really neat to have a portable one, ultraportable technology that you could take anywhere in the world, even in poor countries with poor electrical power."

One challenge was to shrink the big magnets used in desktop versions today, down to a size small enough to fit in your hand. Along the way, it not only became smaller, but more accurate and faster. Fast and portable enough one day to be used to screen travelers at airports.

"What we can do one day," says Gaster, "is dispense these in your local pharmacy and be able to really let the individual take their own health care into their own hands."

The two attribute success to the very different skills brought by themselves and their Principal Investigator. "Dr. Shan Wang, he is in materials science. I'm in bioengineering. Drew's in electrical engineering," says Gaster. Hall adds, "We could not have done this without each other."

The work just earned them a big trophy, thousands in prize money and both have newly discovered planets named in their honor.

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